In analysing [A. V.] Dicey’s version of the rule of law, it can be seen that it venerated formal equality at the expense of substantive equality. In other words, he thought that the law and the State should be blind to the real concrete differences that exist between people, in terms of wealth or power or connection, and should treat them all the same, as possessors of abstract rights and duties.

Source: p 23, The English Legal System 2012-2013, Gary Slapper. Italics are the book's, bolds mine.

Which definition of formal applies here? Defn 3 states

Of or concerned with outward form or appearance as distinct from content: ,

but wouldn't these outward substances contradict Dicey's preference of 'abstract rights and duties'?

2 Answers 2


No, they do not contradict. The outward form of a poor person, a rich person, an average person who happens to know the king/queen/president/etc is all the same -- a person.

There exist great inequalities between different persons: education, money, skill, connections, etc.; but when when it comes to Law, Dicey wanted a formal equality, not one that varied with status.

  • Correct. Here, formal equality would be achieved by treating every person as a being with attached abstract rights and duties. The fact that one person is a taxi driver and the other a CEO would not enter the equation.
    – Damien H
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 3:25

I believe the formal/substantive distinction here goes all the way back to medieval "scholastic" neo-Aristotelian metaphysics, where formal would be synonymous with "essential", i.e. relating to the essence of the being (its "form" or "soul"), and substantive would by synonymous with "accidental, circumstantial, not intrinsic". In other words, men should be accorded equality as men, rather than treated differently under the law merely because one happened to be a tradesman, say, and the other an earl.

You must log in to answer this question.